Dawn’s big blue eyes contain a note of desperation that I’ve come to recognize even though she’s managed to keep it from her tone of voice. I recognize it because I see it reflected in my own eyes every time I’ve looked in the mirror since Willow and the others brought me back from death.
I glance at Spike, tucking a strand of my now short blond hair behind my ear and mentally kick myself. After all, he just goaded me in the kitchen a few days ago about the way my hair bounces or something.
Spike’s equally blue eyes glint back at me. “So, pet, what’ll it be?”
I take a step closer to Dawn and sigh. When had I started feeling so disconnected? When had I started feeling like I didn’t have a family anymore? My mind races back in time, but I can’t pinpoint an exact moment.
Before I realize words are coming out of my mouth, I hear myself saying, “Okay” without a trace of anger or resentment. Dawn squeals with delight, bouncing and flinging her arms around my neck for a brief instant before dancing back to her original spot. Then, I add, “But there are going to be some rules.”
Spike smirks at me. “There always are with you, Slayer.”
Planting my hands on my hips, I shoot daggers at him with my eyes. “That’s because you don’t have any boundaries unless I set them for you.”
He catches and holds my gaze, jamming his thumb in the waistband of his jeans. “Whatever you want to think to make yourself feel better.”
I ignore him and flick a finger out. “One. This does *not* mean that you and I will share a bedroom.”
“So, I’ll be sleeping with Dawn.”
Dawn lightly punches him with her unbroken arm. “I got the bed; you got the floor, Mister.”
I roll my eyes. “Willow will be moving in with her parents for a while. She mentioned it to me last night.”
“Good,” Dawn says, cradling her cast in her left hand.
“Just until this mess is straightened out. Besides, even though her parents are pretty much oblivious to her life, I think she could use some chicken soup and home loving to help her adjust to losing Tara and staying off the magic.”
“Do you think they’ll get back together?” Even though Dawn is obviously angry at Willow for almost getting her killed and breaking her arm, she still loves the idea of Willow and Tara. . . her ideal of love and romance, and she misses Tara a lot.
I stroke her shoulder. “I’m sure they will. They just have to sort some things out. Sometimes that just takes time.”
Spike interrupts our sisterly moment, “So, that’s the only rule, huh? Think I can handle that.”
Raising my voice again, I continue, “Rule number two. No blood in the kitchen refrigerator.”
“No blood? What the hell am I going to eat?” A thoughtful expression colors his features. “Of course, if I can have hot running blood anytime I want, I won’t have to worry about. . .”
“No!” Dawn and I protest together.
Spike opens his mouth to make another comment, but before he can unleash the words, the doorbell rings.
Dawn jerks a little in surprise. “Shit! They’re here!”
“Rule number three. No cussing in front of the social worker. I had a hard enough time getting rid of Mrs. Whats-her-name. . . you know, the last social worker that stopped by.” I glare at Dawn and Spike. “No thanks to either of you.”
“Hey, now,” Spike protests. “I tried to help; I can’t help if the bint got the wrong idea.” He raises a finger at Dawn. “And the Bit here was just exercising her right to be a bit of a grump after what happened with Red.”
“Right.” Dawn nods. “I’m prepared to do better this time. And it’s a different social worker, so we can make new impressions. I really, *really* don’t want to go live with Dad.”
“Could have fooled me,” I murmur under my breath as I shake my head and hurry to answer the door as the bell rings a second time. I turn my head to give the eager pair a final warning as I grasp the doorknob. “Be good.”
Straightening my shirt over the waistband of my skirt, I fling open the door, plastering a huge smile over my face. Although the smile feels more than a bit forced, the grin allows me to bring a happier note into my tone of voice. “Good morning!”
I try not to grimace at the social worker standing on my doorstep. Taking a deep breath, I meet his steel grey eyes with my green ones and extend my hand in greeting. The social worker’s large meaty hand nearly swallows my fingers against his palm, and I have to remind myself not to squeeze too tightly when he purposefully hangs onto me a little too long. After all, I am supposed to be “a meek little girly girl” as Willow once told me back in high school.
“Welcome to our home, Mr., er. . .”
“Helmunde is my name.”
There’s no other word for him. Mr. Helmunde is huge. He’s over six foot tall and almost as wide, but he’s by no means overweight. The muscles in his arms, legs, and neck look like they might pop out of his shirtsleeves, khakis, and collar any second.
His clothes are almost too neatly pressed, and his skin is paler than Spike’s. Still, his flesh is warm, and he walked up the sunny sidewalk from his surprisingly tiny car, so he’s definitely not a vampire. His nose is narrow and pinched, and it doesn’t quite fit on the broad expanse of his face. A set of the smallest glasses I’ve ever seen perches over his hard eyes.
He pushes his way through the door before I have a chance to invite him into the house, his large frame coming more in contact with me than I would like.
Mr. Helmunde stops short in the small foyer by the staircase and surveys Dawn and Spike without moving to let me around him. He bends his head forward and studies his clipboard, roughly flipping a few pages. He clicks open his ballpoint pen and jots a note on the paper.
I still can’t see what’s going on, and Mr. Helmunde’s not moving any time soon. I resist the urge to shove him forward and squeeze up next to my sister, stuffing my hands in the back pockets of my skirt. Ever the polite hostess, I ask, “So, would you like something to eat or drink? We have soda and juice and milk if you like. And I think we may have some protein bars left over from when my friend, Xander, went on the Atkins diet a few months ago. And you can come into the living room and take a load off. I’m sure you’re tired from all the running around to different houses all day.”
Continuing to click his pen open and closed, Mr. Helmunde regards me with an “are you insane, lady” look. Ignoring my offer of hospitality, he states, “First of all, I’d like you to begin by telling me who the hell this young man is, why Dawn’s arm is broken, and why Dawn is living under the care of such a young woman as yourself.” Before any reasonable amount of time has passed, he demands, “Well. Is anyone going to explain this to me?”
I step forward and try to peer at the papers on his clipboard. Talking over the sharp noise of the pen, I attempt to explain our situation, “Well, sir, I think the paper work should say that I’m Dawn’s older sister even though I look younger. I mean, I know I look young; I get carded all the time. Well, not to say that I drink a lot. . .often. In fact, I rarely do. . . drink. . . except when I’ve had a bad day or something.”
Mr. Helmunde raises his thick black eyebrows at me, and Dawn nudges me, so I finish weakly, “And our mom died last year?”
The beefy social worker “You still haven’t told me who this young man is.”
I blink. Young man? There is no young man here.
Sighing, Spike opens his mouth, “I’m her boyfriend.”
Somehow even though that was the plan, I still feel uncomfortable with the idea. To settle the fresh butterflies in my stomach, I remind myself that Spike took care of Dawn all summer while I was gone. . . that he had kept his promise to always protect her. That’s what we were doing now.
“Yes,” I pipe up, feeling Spike’s eyes flicker to me in surprise at my acceptance of his words. “He is.”
Mr. Helmunde starts writing with even greater vigor, simultaneously asking, “Do you really think you should be dating someone so young?”
Oh, shit. These social workers are tough. When will they get with it and realize it’s the 21st century. . . that people live together and raise children all the time without being married? Doesn’t matter that Spike is over a century older than me. He certainly doesn’t act his age. . . or look it.
Spike’s voice takes on the defensive tone that he always uses when one of us verbally attacks him, “Um, I don’t really see how you can make that judgment. . .” He catches the alarm on my face and backs off. “. . . sir.”
I didn’t think Mr. Helmunde’s muscles could bulge anymore, but now he’s flexing them, and his face is turning various shades of red. “It certainly is my business. It’s against the law for someone *your* age to date a minor.”
Dawn’s half-hiding behind me now, but she interjects, “Buffy’s not a minor.”
Mr. Helmunde’s color immediately drops to pink. “Oh, you’re Dawn’s sister’s boyfriend,” he says, more to himself than anyone in the room. He rather dramatically draws a line through the lines he’s just written and keeps scribbling this new information down. “Still.” He gives Spike and me a disapproving look. “That’s a little questionable. Exposure of *that sort* might have a negative impact on impressionable minds.”
Spike flares. “Look here. Dawn’s not a little chil. . .” My hand falls on his forearm, and he stops, startled by my voluntary touch.
Luckily, Mr. Helmunde ignores Spike’s edge and seems to notice only what he wants to notice, no matter how skewed it is.
A beeping noise fills the air as Mr. Helmunde’s writing. Dawn and I look at each other and around the room to see what might be going off. For all we know, it could be any one of several things like the smoke alarm, my pager, or some sort of magical alarm set up by Willow or Tara to protect the house.
Mr. Helmunde reaches for his hip without taking his eyes from his clipboard. Not even glancing at the beeper in his hand, he says, “Looks like you’ve lucked out for a few more hours. I got an emergency. I’ll be back to check the house to see if your story checks out.”
“Um, check out our story? What will you be looking for?” Dawn asks innocently, and I’m glad she’s the one who’s voiced a question.
The social worker manages to offer my sister a small smile, albeit a patronizing one. “Well, if I told you that, it wouldn’t really be a check, now would it?” Without another word, he turns to leave. Pausing in the doorway, he throws back, “Think about it.”
The door slams behind him. Dawn, Spike, and I stare at the closed door.
“Wow,” is all I can manage.
“He’s a nit,” Spike mutters with just as much fluency as me.
I nod, a giggle in the back of my throat at the irony of how screwed we are. “Definitely. A big ole jerk person. . . with beady little bird eyes.”
“Can you imagine him and his wife in bed together?”
Dawn and I make faces at Spike.
“Gutter brain,” I fire at him.
“What?” Spike protests. “You gotta admit that the git was ugly.”
“A git with a funny name. Isn’t Helmundes a type of mayo?” Dawn asks with an expression of such pure sincerity that Spike and I dissolve in laughter.
We are so screwed.